*Note: an edited version of this article appeared in the Washington City Paper.
Layered beneath the flurry of articles bemoaning the death of print journalism, one aspect not regularly mentioned (perhaps not to seem even more cloying) is the somnambulant status of the critic. The professional critic’s stature, maligned as elitist or outright ignored, had diminished long before the onset of the current crisis facing newspapers and magazines. This argument is consistently paraded out during award seasons, when numerous discrepancies arise between the highest grossing and widely praised. As this dynamic steadily played itself out, year after year, mainstream publications have been neutered and marginalized while non-traditional outlets filled the void until the Internet gave everyone with an opinion and a caps lock button a voice.
Founded in 1995, Pitchfork Media gained a significant amount of influence around 2002-2003, when the indie rock leviathan began wielding a power and influence music writers of this generation were previously unaccustomed. The narrative that follows is common knowledge: the site was suddenly in the position to launch careers (most prominently with Canucks Broken Social Scene and Arcade Fire) and stymie the efforts of others (the district’s very own Travis Morrison received a much ballyhooed 0.0 for Travistan). In between those extremes, Pitchfork has been able to transform tours by fledgling or previously unknown local bands into national events by bestowing its “Best New Music” label. This process, transpiring on a considerably smaller stage and with a brisker pace than previous reference points (Rolling Stone, et al.), heralded the establishment of a new critical governing body whose opinion had a substantial impact on its readership, linking positive coverage with album sales and artist popularity.
Pitchfork became a dominant force within independent music (er, rock music?) partly because its ascendancy came as traditional music-centric outlets are looked upon as non-assuming, beholden to its advertisers, and in the most severe cases, simply irrelevant. Along with its serendipitous timing, the site now cannily combines the most attractive aspects of new and old coverage, combining daily news updates (25% usually involving Radiohead) and a static database of record reviews, interviews, and features. Yet, unlike the majority of its web contemporaries, Pitchfork operates within a decidedly non-user friendly platform, with no section on the site facilitating a dialogue with its audience. Playing by familiar rules, Pitchfork reaffirms its clout and critical authority by keeping its dialogue and opinions one-dimensional.
All of which brings us to this year’s P2K extravaganza. Pitchfork is not the first entity to formulate authoritative lists to commemorate a specific year or decade’s music or even for its current ubiquity. Yet its tastemaker status once again positioned itself at a curious time, a period in which incessant cataloging and list making as mirroring one’s own self-image or attainment of cultural currency is particularly en vogue (thanks, Nick Hornby and Chuck Klostermann!). The most dispiriting manifestation was last year’s excursion into coffee table publications The Pitchfork 500, the site’s bid at print-based respectability (look ma, you can hold this in your hands!) with a boomer-like affinity for incessant cataloging and conventional, genre-segregated selections.
With previous retrograde lists, Pitchfork were afforded the comfortable distance of post-hoc analysis and one that falls largely outside of their experiential scope as critics. Thus, the site’s best of ’00s list has an interesting heft: not only is it the only decade in which Pitchfork was active throughout but also the first in which the site has exerted influence as a critical entity. A cursory glance at the very peak of its top album list a mix of obvious consensus (Radiohead, Jay-Z, Outkast) and bands it is arguably be responsible for breaking (Animal Collective, The Hold Steady), falling into a curious self-fulfilling prophecy: the best music has taken the shape of the site’s biggest success stories. Sifting through the list, it is striking how many things Pitchfork believes it got right over the past decade. Chicago Sun Times writer Jim DeRogatis explored similar terrain unpacking the sticky details of Pitchfork’s journalistic objectivity in light of its expansion into music festivals and Internet television. Is a band’s association with these ventures a sign of approval or is it a question of business? And in the case of P2K, how does one separate Pitchfork’s objective analysis from the canonization of its own taste?
Above all else, P2K’s overwhelmingly comprehensive coverage’s greatest sin was the fact that reading it felt like a chore. Its humorless lists were intolerably lengthy and managed to absolve the exercise of its raison d’être: distinction. P2K acknowledged 500 songs, 50 music videos and 200 albums as the best. Even within the perspective of the ‘everybody wins’ culture in which I was raised, that is still 750 noteworthy selections. In its effort to be all-encompassing, or more importantly, definitive, the list’s inclusiveness reads like an affront to both the audience and artists. Would either agree or care about the ranking of the decade’s 278th best song? Most of the fun of participating in the exercise is the ensuing conversations (i.e. bickering) about overlooked and undervalued favorites. By covering all of its bases, P2K took pains to avoid any disagreement, concluding with an anticlimactic top ten that anyone with a cursory knowledge of the site could have predicted.
The past ten years has seen a terrifyingly rapid influx of bands and albums, and Pitchfork has maintained, for the most part, its status as a reliable barometer of quality within a certain cross-section of music. I readily offer that I myself read the site every day. That it engages within the geeky infrastructure of procedural year-end features is of no relevance to its overall value as a resource. The disappointment stems from its continued resistance to use its singular position to break from of the doldrums of music criticism that the site initially helped to shake up. Whether you enjoy or despise its content, Pitchfork’s ubiquitous authority is on track to shape the musical landscape of the next ten years. Let’s hope that the passage of time helps them to recognize the wisdom in brevity and the pitfalls of solipsism.